Elections

In Nevada Debate, Bloomberg Flops as Bernie Skates Through

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Bernie Sanders appear on monitors in the media filing center during the Democratic primary debate in Las Vegas, Nev., February 19, 2020. (David Becker/Reuters)
Last night provided no sign of consolidation around an anti-Sanders Democrat.

On Wednesday morning, Michael Bloomberg’s campaign issued a “dire” warning in a memo: Bernie Sanders would soon become unstoppable unless Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar dropped out of the race so Bloomberg could defeat him in a head-to-head matchup.

Less than 30 minutes into the Democratic debate in Las Vegas on Wednesday night, it was more reasonable to ask why Bloomberg doesn’t drop out and endorse one of the three relative moderates in the race. The billionaire and former New York mayor emerged from his first presidential-primary debate badly wounded. He did not appear at all to be the man who could beat Sanders in a head-to-head race.

Just minutes after the debate started, Elizabeth Warren went after Bloomberg, and she didn’t let up. “I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: A billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians,’ and no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump, I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg,” she said. She went on to hit Bloomberg for “supporting racist policies like redlining and stop-and-frisk.” After calling Bloomberg a sexist and a racist, she was careful to pledge that she’d vote for him if he’s the Democratic nominee: “Look, I’ll support whoever the Democratic nominee is, but understand this. Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.”

That was a bit odd, but it likely didn’t stick in viewers’ minds. Warren’s most memorable moment of the night was when she shredded Bloomberg over his requiring some female employees to sign non-disclosure agreements. Warren said Bloomberg had gotten perhaps “dozens” of women to sign such agreements for “both for sexual harassment and for gender discrimination in the workplace. So, Mr. Mayor, are you willing to release all of those women from those non-disclosure agreements, so we can hear their side of the story?”

Bloomberg responded he wouldn’t release them because the agreements with women were consensual and: “None of them accuse me of doing anything other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told.”

Warren’s show of force against Bloomberg could help her win over some undecided voters and peel away some of the soft supporters of Buttigieg and Klobuchar. It’s easy to see her finishing second in Nevada’s caucuses after Wednesday’s debate. But where does she go from there? The strategic error in her plan of attack on Wednesday night was her failure to hit Bernie Sanders. If she has a chance of mounting a comeback, she needs to take away some of the Vermont senator’s supporters, and it’s hard to see how Wednesday night’s debate helped her much on that front.

So the consensus take on the debate seems correct: Bloomberg lost and Sanders won. It’s true that Bloomberg landed a few good jabs on Sanders. “What a wonderful country we have. The best-known socialist in the country happens to be a millionaire with three houses,” Bloomberg said. Sanders snapped back that he simply owned a “summer camp” (with 500 feet of beachfront on Lake Champlain) in addition to his places in Burlington and Washington.

Yet Sanders seemed to walk away from the debate stronger than ever. The squabbling among Buttigieg and Klobuchar, the runners-up in New Hampshire, is going to make it very difficult for either of them to take off in Nevada on Saturday, and they’re both in desperate need of a nationwide boost before the Super Tuesday primaries on March 3.

With Bloomberg flopping and Buttigieg and Klobuchar failing to take off, will Democrats wishing to stop Sanders turn their lonely eyes back to Joe Biden? He underperformed the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, and his lead in South Carolina has been shrinking. Maybe he will be helped to rebound in national polls by Bloomberg’s poor debate. Maybe Tom Steyer, who is polling in double digits in South Carolina, will implode on the debate stage next week before that state votes. But if Biden doesn’t come in first in South Carolina, it’s hard to see how he — or anyone else — will stop Sanders from winning the most delegates and the most votes in the race for the party’s nomination.

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